71. Dark Souls, part 1

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Title: Dark Souls
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Date: 2011
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: From Software

I’ve been reading through Ted Hughes’ Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (1970) again and I’m glad to report it is just as forceful and gross as it appeared to me several years ago. The collection of poems catalogue the myths of the titular character Crow, a vile, feathered trickster god, part Prometheus, part mystical guide, as he picks apart, explores, and often brutalizes his bleak and jagged surroundings, scrounging up meaning in a biblical and heavy, polluted wasteland covered in tar and skulls. Needless to say, it’s one of my favorite books of poetry.

A few excerpts:

From “Crow’s Elephant Totem Song”:

‘At the Resurrection,
The Elephant got himself together with correction
Deadfall feet and toothproof body and bulldozing bones
And completely altered brains
Behind aged eyes, that were wicked and wise.’

From “Crow’s First Lesson”:

‘And Crow retched again, before God could stop him.
And woman’s vulva dropped over man’s neck and tightened.
The two struggled together on the grass.
God struggled to part them, cursed, wept–

Crow flew guiltily off.’

From “Crowego”:

‘The gold melted out of Hercules’ ashes
Is an electrode in Crow’s brain.

Drinking Beowulf’s blood, and wrapped in his hide,
Crow communes with poltergeists out of old ponds.’

From “Crow Blacker than ever”:

Crow nailed them together,
Nailing Heaven and Earth together–

So man cried, but with God’s voice.
And God bled, but with man’s blood.

Then heaven and earth creaked at the joint
Which became gangrenous and stank–
A horror beyond redemption.

The agony did not diminish.’

– – –

While playing through Dark Souls, the agony certainly never diminishes. Even the back of the box reads, with no remorse, “PREPARE TO DIE”. There is no glorified battle of good versus evil, no promise of beauty, of wonder, no fun in sight. Only tension, “incredible challenge,” and death. Like Hughes’ poems, there is zero compassion, no light, and at the first sign of humanity and its weakness, the cragged landscape will fold over and swallow all life whole.

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Even the first few seconds of the game starting up are so ominous and grim, barely allowing players to breathe. And that’s just the game telling players about the auto-save feature and the “checking for save data” message. Upon pressing the button to proceed from the auto-save message, players hear a loud, throaty, inhuman inhale before being plunged into darkness. This auto-save message is the most sinister of its kind this side of Amnesia: the Dark Descent’s “don’t worry about saving, bro, just let us scare the shit out of you.”

The bright Namco Bandai logo after is a welcome sign, the final reminder that Dark Souls is a video game, but it’s the last light players will ever see, the last fleeting moment of false sanctuary before being dropped into the abyss. It sounds like I’m being dramatic, but pay attention next time the game starts up. It’s quite the presentation.

Dark Souls is great. It presents a hell never thought possible, a descending spiral of maddening, repetitious death and decay, a series of convoluted ruins built of bones and blackness, where life is sudden and humanity is reduced to an object to be gained from fallen demons. There is no comfort, nothing warm or soft, and all surfaces are spikes and poison.

A first playthrough of Dark Souls is as awful as it is immense, and is akin to watching Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), or something else equally as affecting and nasty. It’s like running the Tough Mudder, a brutal marathon of endurance and will, mud and dirt, or being pulled along through and eventually smothered in the Blackout Haunted House in New York City. Players will sweat, curse, shake, and pray before the credits roll, if they ever do, and one’s soul will never quite be the same after.

– – – Difficulty – – –

Dark Souls veterans can run through the game quickly and without hesitation. It’s common to hear someone on a forum boast that the game “isn’t that hard” and that the difficulty of the game is exaggerated or even “artificial.” The game features an open world environment, with a massive assortment of weapons, armor, and skills to choose from (making the game a great candidate for a speedrun), but knowing where to go and when to go there is part of the uphill battle. Every enemy encounter requires a good amount of knowledge and skill, from the lowliest skeleton knights to the elephantine behemoths of the underworld, and enemies are programmed to go out of their way to trap players and catch them off guard. Boss battles, while sometimes the least of players’ worries, are terrifying, high-risk trials that require careful planning and fast paced strategizing while running for one’s life.

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Couple this with the game’s steep death policy (players lose all currency, souls, upon death and must return to where they died to retrieve it; if they die on the way, it is gone for good; souls also act as experience points), and the game becomes even less forgiving.

I have played through most of the game a handful of times, and even by the second playthrough, the first third of the game became quickly and easily conquered. That’s not to say the difficulty was gone, but I was wiser, and the game no longer exhausted me the way it had. I was hardened, turned into one of the horde of demonic beasts and I belonged in that den of sludge and stone. Layouts of maps, enemy traps, and item positions, once memorized, are a cinch to maneuver through, and the game, like most of the Zelda games, becomes a joy to dance through and topple.

Dark Souls is a testament to the talent of the developers, From Software, a game that presents such a monumental challenge that players must devote the time to learn all of its intricacies. The pacing in this regard is phenomenal. Veterans can speed through the game, but it is still enjoyable and the game’s world is still unruly, and every bit of knowledge feels so rewarding when used on a subsequent playthrough. Newcomers will stumble and die, lose their souls both inside the game and outside of it, but those that persevere will be rewarded with knowledge and power, a sense of accomplishment and victory, the only meaning in the otherwise hollow, senseless world.

Dark Soul’s high difficulty level may turn players away from it, but the high difficulty only enhances the game’s gameplay and intensifies its atmosphere. Games of the survival horror genre (Sweet Home, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Alone in the Dark, Ecstatica) often incorporate a high or at least a sporadic difficulty level in order to force the player into feeling vulnerable and weak, amplifying the fear. Permanent death (Sweet Home), unintuitive, crippling “tank” controls (Resident Evil, Ecstatica), cruel instant-kill traps (Alone in the Dark), hordes of enemies that are better to run from than to fight (Project Firestart), and a severe lack of health items and weapons (all of these games) force players to tread cautiously and with fingers crossed. In these games, it is usually better to run or hide from enemies as health and ammo are limited, adding to the sense of claustrophobia and aloneness. Some players dislike these limitations and see little value in the strange control schemes, but it is those limitations that are part of the thrill.

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At times, Dark Souls feels like a survival horror game, but not like any of the previously mentioned games. The controls and movement, as well as the camera, feel very modern and responsive. Other than the few rare glitches that can plunge players to their death at random, the controls are very fair and rarely at fault for a sharp death. There are a good number of save points (bonfires) and even though the number and variety of paths are immense and convoluted, players will rarely feel lost.

The original Resident Evil tied game saving with a consumable item, meaning recording progress became a resource management nightmare, reemphasizing the survival in survival horror (most players complain about this feature, and it is stressful, but it does have its purpose). Dark Souls does incorporate high risks into adventuring with the loss of souls upon death (and permanent loss of souls if they go uncollected), which makes the player feel unloved and uncared for. Some critics complain about too much “hand-holding” in games, but here is a game that not only does not hold one’s hand, but grabs it and cuts it off and probably pisses on it, too.

Although there aren’t too many traps in the game, players unfamiliar with the terrain will die constantly from the unique barrage of environmental hazards. Alerting impossibly difficult enemies, crumbling ruin floors, lava, poison marshes, and easily stepped-over cliff edges are constantly exasperating players. There’s even an entire fortress of the game devoted to sneaky traps. Players will be frustrated, but the game is paced to take it slow and learn from one’s mistakes.

While enemies, once familiarized with, are easily circumnavigated and avoided (mostly), every enemy is powerful enough to kill even a high level player without too much effort. The enemies also strategize and work together to ensnare players in tight situations and they can easily knock players off the abundant instant-kill cliffs. Still, new players will want to risk defeating enemies to gain more souls to become more powerful. Grinding for souls becomes an exercise in futility unless directly next to a bonfire as a weak player can die even in a semi-familiar area with ease.

Mega Man 2

Mega Man 2

My initial conclusion was that a higher difficulty makes a game more frightening, but this does not seem to be the case. For instance, in Mega Man 2, Quick Man’s level, which I’ve come to learn is most player’s least liked level (although a favorite of mine), is an extremely difficult, possibly unfair area where players control Mega Man as he plummets down this chute and has to dodge instant-kill beams of fire. Unsuspecting players will die immediately as the whole situation speeds by so quickly, with no end in sight. There’s the surprise instant-kill traps, a fear of the unknown and a fear for conserving life, and no chance to take a breather.

It almost has the makings of a survival horror situation (obviously, it lacks the horror genre elements), as the high difficulty does make players sweat and pray, but rather than being scary, the experience is a feeling of elated intensity (until the player throws the controller through the tv screen). Mega Man 2’s rocking tunes, its popping visuals and vibrating colors are enhanced through the game’s difficulty (note: it’s probably the easiest of the NES Mega Man games) and that is why that particular level appeals to me so much. Players are forced to play the game as closely and as hard as they can, the stakes are high and players are pushed to their limits. And when it’s all over, players drop their controllers and put their fists in the air in triumph.

Video game players often speak about “old school difficulty” or “retro difficulty” and some players wish it would come back and some players remember Milon’s Secret Castle. It could be argued that retro difficulty is closely linked with unfair or obtuse gameplay, poor game design, unintuitive controls, hardware limitations, and bad programming. For every Ninja Gaiden, there are at least five Fester’s Quests.

Many other players would argue that retro difficulty is a myth and that completing Super Mario Bros. 2 takes far less skill than completing everything in Super Mario Galaxy 2. Games from the NES era usually had higher stakes, limited lives, no saves, rare checkpoints, more obtuse puzzles, and zero “hand-holding” compared to contemporary games.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

An extreme and useful example is Zelda II: The Adventure of Link versus Skyward Sword. The former features awful checkpoints with limited lives and treacherous dungeons that make even Zelda veterans turn off the console, cursing. Players can interact with NPCs in towns, but will rarely hear anything useful. Whereas Skyward Sword is all about structured scenarios, tons of dialogue, and very clearly defined goals. Players do not learn from their mistakes in Skyward Sword, they learn whatever the narrative tells them to learn. Newer games have far more complicated controls and rules than older games, and thus need to give players some idea of what to do and how to do it, but this can lead to boring gaming.

Dark Souls features a perfect combination of being brutally difficult and meandering and still giving players something of a clue about how the game operates. The initial area is something of a tutorial, where the game teaches players controls through short messages that do not require the game to stop and start (like most game dialogue). The enemies here are very real and most players will die at least once (or at least feel like they were going to) during the culminated fight against a colossal foe.

And then, players are thrust into the world, are given three directions to go  (a hill infested with skeletons, a graveyard infested with skeletons, and an awful underground basin full of god knows what) and that’s that. The rest is trial and error and proper planning. Players do not learn when the game deems it learning time. They only learn from their own mistakes.

It’s been pointed out to me by a few people that the Souls games “feel like SNES games” and I think that is an important qualification. The high level of difficulty and the type of difficulty give it its SNES quality. There is rarely any luck involved. Memorization of patterns is key and conservation and preparedness are rewarded. Even with maps or tips, the game is still difficult. All these qualities used to be staples of the action or action-adventure genres. Already stated is the lack of “hand-holding.” Players are thrust into a nightmare world and forced to figure it out on their own. The game certainly won’t help players, and most of the NPCs are cryptic, recalling the days of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (not a SNES game, but still a useful comparison).

But what makes Dark Souls truly “feel like a SNES game” is its absolute, tight design. It wastes zero time and zero space, and no section feels extraneous. Every bit of text, every item, every enemy, and every square inch of the game’s world is so deliberate, and builds up to the whole of the game. I would characterize SNES games as being highly compact and well designed, perfecting the genres introduced by their NES predecessors. Super Mario World, Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger, A Link to the Past, and Mega Man X are all examples of video game perfection, supremely and so tightly designed, such meaty experiences.

Dark Souls, for being so convoluted and for featuring such complicated character customization, is surprisingly simple and does not need much in the way of instruction. When the back of the box says “PREPARE TO DIE,” that’s all players really need to know.

– – – The World – – –

King's Field

King’s Field

What may not be immediately striking about the atmosphere of Dark Souls is that the game manages to have that dense, lurking creepiness and sense of the unknown that games like From Software’s earlier King’s Field titles or Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall have. These games house featureless and eternally dark worlds, where everything is either black, gray, or an ungodly neutral green or brown, and while there are NPCs, static, sad people, most interaction comes from the garbled blurs of fangs and claws that approach players from out of the void.

I’ve always appreciated (and feared) 3D games with low draw distances, low polygon counts, and barely any textures because of how surreal and otherworldly they are (Quest 64 is a great example). What surprises me about Dark Souls is that the game still has that feeling of creepiness and otherworldly dread and still looks incredibly detailed and highly modern. It might not have the highest polygon count on the PS3, but any screenshot from the game invokes so much awe and interest, and also terror, and it is easily one of the best looking games on the system.

Dark Souls is often as mysterious as it is creepy, and part of what aids in its atmosphere is its grand sense of space. Demon’s Souls featured a hub environment for players to speak to NPCs, shop, and adjust their characters. From that hub are portals to different worlds, where players explore and fight enemies. This is useful as it gives players a better idea of where to go and when to go there (go to level 1 first, etcetera), but it takes away from the game’s sense of space.

When I wrote about Super Mario World I mentioned how the game benefitted from having one large world to explore instead of eight broken up worlds as in Super Mario Bros. 3. Dark Souls is similar in that it ditches the hub and portals of its predecessor in favor of one sprawling interconnected kingdom, Lordran. Rather than move through portals to enter new areas, players must explore caves and sewers to reach new areas. Each area and its connecting tunnels feel so deliberate and very real, and by the time players have seen everything, they will have an extensive understanding of the spatial relationships of the different areas of Lordran. This also gives the sense that no place is truly safe (which is true), as enemies can follow players right up to the bonfires and there is no hub world to rest in (also note that there is no way to pause the game; even when in the menu screens, the game world continues to move).

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After the player escapes from the Undead Asylum (how great is that?), he or she is dropped into the Firelink Shrine and is given several options of where to go. There’s some mysterious ruins which seem to hold more secrets than they reveal, and behind them, a sea of beautifully rendered graves, which upon entering, rises the rattling dead. I have always admired the graveyard and its unearthly quality. The gravestones are various and in complete chaos, as if pushed out from the ground, and they seem to have a sickly glow to them.

Below, the player can take an elevator, which leads to some underground ruins, which again, seem to hold various secrets. There are ghosts down there, and it is easy to fall into the depths when crossing some narrow bridges. It is a rush to dash through these areas at the onset of the game, dodging powerful enemies in the hopes of acquiring a few powerful items.

The third option, which presents itself as the best option, is an ascending hill that seems to lead up into a dilapidated aqueduct. There are a handful of skeletons on the hill who attack when approached, but they are easily dispatched with a decent strategy.

The Firelink Shrine’s theme, a quiet, almost ambient collection of strings, piano, and bells, creeps through the weirdly lit air at the slow pace of a funeral procession, mild, but certainly not comforting. It is a somber theme of death and plague, recalling Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” but devoid of its lingering passion.

Much of the music from Dark Souls is ominous, featuring hollow bells and chimes, operatic gasps (“Daughters of Chaos”), or Orffian dramatics, piercing staccato, and otherworldly horns (“Gravelord Nito,” “Bed of Chaos”). Motoi Sakuraba, whose work appears in the Tales games, Star Ocean, Golden Sun, Baten Kaitos, and Valkyrie Profile, is at his climactic best here, and his adoration for a wide range of operatic voices is spot on for the immensity of the game. Tracks like “Crossbreed Priscilla” are essentially a collection of haunting moans carried along by a scarce, threatening drum beat. And there is true beauty in “Gwyn, Lord of Cinder,” a dire piano piece that evokes “Midna’s Lament” from Twilight Princess, but with less ornamentation, a much more difficult piece of music.

The contrast between ambiance and pianissimo versus the booming tracks played when danger strikes wonderfully highlights the extremities in both gameplay and world. Moments of subdued safety and nuance are quickly shattered by encroaching enemies lurking just outside of bonfire bounds, and even the game’s terrain is ecstatically lawless in its assault, both gameplay-wise and visually.

– – –

Another feature that Dark Souls has in addition to its great sense of space is its sense of composition and scene-building. The hill at Firelink Shrine with the skeletons on it are one of these striking scenes that are just so well put together artistically. Any number of screenshots cannot do justice here. As players gaze up at this green-gray hill for the first time, the hill eerily saturated and dotted with the distant figures of blue, shining skeletons, shakily holding swords and shields, a sense of the awesome and sublime nears, as well as absolute terror.

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This area reminds me of the opening of Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), when the Spanish conquistadores and their indigenous slaves are descending down the narrow mountain path through the jungle, trudging slowly and pulling cannons. The scene is so beautiful as the camera pans down the mountain, revealing more soldiers amid the lush and sickly saturated jungle flora, their heads and bodies appearing red and brown, a churning line of mud and blood.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is in many ways similar to Dark Souls, as both are essentially about a material quest against a nauseating and absurd natural world. But this hill in the beginning of the game appears as a less dramatic version of the mountainous jungle in Aguirre, a rotted out and vacated version, one where man already made a vain attempt to control the craggy terrain and failed, leaving behind scattered, emaciated corpses, cursed with locomotion and killing power. Even the sheen on the player’s and enemies’ armor and weapons appears so bright and sickly in the Lordran sunlight, real and harsh. It is rare in a game where the green of the grass, some shiny armor, and an array of background neutral blues have so much weight, but they do here, and it’s brutal.

Much in Dark Souls is also reminiscent of the paintings of El Greco, with their distinct sense of color and light. The hill at Firelink also bears a striking resemblance to El Greco’s View of Toledo, which could easily be a depiction of Lordran. The painting, like much of El Greco’s work, is unfamiliarly sinister, both dark and vibrant, icy, sick, and metallic. Its sharp contrast between lights and darks parallel the otherworldly saturation and lighting in Dark Souls.

View of Toledo

View of Toledo

According to Wikipedia, David Davies, English art historian, claims that, among other things, neo-Platonism is the key to understanding El Greco’s style. Dark Souls can certainly be read as a dramatized neo-Platonic video game (with the Souls of Lords as the world-soul, the Lords as the Cosmic Gods). The world of Dark Souls holds a strange combination of idealistic monistic-polytheism and mechanistic materialism, and like the paintings of El Greco, holds an enigmatic, sacred, creepy vision.

Another scene that stands out is when the player first enters Blighttown from the Valley of the Drakes (or from the Depths, but the impact is not as dramatic). Players first must traverse a long, dim tunnel deep into the mountainside, with the occasional troll lurching out of the shadows. After being completely immersed into the underworld, the player finds himself in this tremendous space, high up on a rickety wooden platform.

While swatting at bloated mosquitoes in the oily light of a few flickering torches, the player notices the convoluted series of greasy tree house-like structures descending into the unknown bog a mile or so below. Above, and this is possibly the most breathtaking spatial relationship in the game, is a series of overhanging aqueducts, these titanic structures, and beyond them, the central castle wall looms in the distance, whatever beams of light capable of penetrating onto them shining faintly and futilely. It is rare that a game can present in a convincing manner such an immense space that is both so varied and detailed. The whole of Blighttown not only tells the story of the people of Lordran and one of their lakes, or possibly a canal, that has dried up and become a diseased swamp, but it makes the player feel incredibly small and mortal and so far down in the muck that it becomes claustrophobic.

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When navigating Blighttown, players are given a portrait of its devolved tribal inhabitants and sympathize with the characters of the lore that sank in the same cursed mud that they are now sinking in. Adding to the space are the connecting areas, especially Quelaag’s Domain, a fleshy, web-covered infected cavern that leads into the Demon Ruins, a series of crumbling ruins beneath the earth bathing in a field of magma hell. Players are left to wonder about the connection of the areas and the history on how they were formed, using the game’s item descriptions as clues. Dark Souls’ minimalist narrative is intricately designed, and Blighttown holds a wealth of history. Blighttown is entirely treacherous, maybe even the easiest place to die in the game, but it is so intricate and massive that it deserves a special mention.

Architecture is often taken for granted in games or at least not considered as much as it should be when designing areas. From the functional square buildings of the NES Final Fantasy games to the layouts of linear modern games (most shooters’ campaign modes, for example, or Final Fantasy XIII), many games do not actively seek to feature interesting and unique spaces to explore. Half-Life 2, Majora’s Mask, BioShock, and even Chrono Trigger have great architectural spaces to explore, and some of the larger open world games (Fallout 3) have very detailed and realistic architectural direction.

Anor Londo, the abandoned city of the gods bestowed with perpetual dusk, continues the trend of Dark Souls areas making players feel small, emphasizing their mortality. It also continues the trend of being increasingly surprising, awe inspiring, and deadly. The view from the top of the initial staircase players are dropped on is breathtaking, the setting sun basking the static buildings in warm pink light. It is appropriate that Dark Souls’ version of Pompeii is buried under sunlight instead of ash, as even the sun cannot thaw the icy grip around Lordran. Before players stretches an endless mass of large churches, spires and columns, and a good amount of the city will be explored before the quest is complete.

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The areas in Anor Londo are realistically sized and players will have to scale flying buttresses, tiptoe over dusty cathedral rafters, and explore a massive Gothic basilica before facing one of the game’s most perilous boss fights. Each section of the area is impressive and designed with such care to both aesthetics and gameplay, and specific allusions to Gothic architecture can be spotted.

But Anor Londo does not simply allude to the real world and instead is an alien city, unlike anything seen before, with its own history only mentioned in passing whispers, its own inhabitants, and a plethora of secrets. The architecture itself tells the story of its people and the sad story of Lordran, without so much as a cutscene or quick time event, and there are only a handful of NPCs milling about. The colossal size of Anor Londo and its abandonment stresses the mortality of the Gods and futility of their power.

Anor Londo recalls other spacious, dusk lit castle areas (Hyrule Castle from the beginning of Twilight Princess, the outdoor areas in Hollow Bastion from Kingdom Hearts, Mizar’s Palace from Jet Force Gemini), but what sets Anor Londo apart from them is its level of reality and sense of exploration, as well as its wavering feelings of dread and awe. When moving through the dusty, silent cathedral halls, players are reminded of the long gone inhabitants, only to be confronted with a huge, inhuman knight at the next corner, striking them dead.

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Apparently, at some point in the world of Dark Souls, an entire city was sacrificed to seal away some horrible evil. New Londo Ruins, which is partly accessible from the beginning of the game, was locked up and flooded to keep in hordes of ghosts and whatever else lurked down there, but the city can be drained and explored further. What players find is one of the most dimly lit, sinister and foreboding areas in the game (which is a hefty claim, considering).

When players initially enter the muddy, rotting city streets, the surroundings are so poorly lit that they are not clear. However, after a bit of exploring, players will realize, with grossed out horror, that they have been trudging through a massive grave of decaying bodies, and that every inch of the drained streets is littered with mounds of mummified corpses. Lurking in the shadows are Darkwraith Knights, which can drain a player’s humanity, and, even worse, the Mass of Souls, a throbbing gelatinous mound of evil and blackness. There are no bonfires in the area, emphasizing how wet and evil the ruins are. If any place in Dark Souls feels like a survival horror game, it is in New Londo Ruins.

While Blighttown, Anor Londo, and the New Londo Ruins are some of the tightest and most interestingly designed areas in the game, each area is comprised of its own beautiful and well-rendered environments and is home to countless secrets, myths, and dangers.

Outside of Blighttown lies the Valley of the Drakes, one of the game’s smallest, most innocuous areas. The whole of the area is a narrow passage along one of the game’s impossibly steep mountains. Players are, on both sides, surrounded by these high cliff walls that block out the hazy sun. Below, a bottomless chasm just inches away. Again, the immensity implied in the area gives the player a sense of being incredibly small and frail.

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Unlike Blighttown, though, the Valley of the Drakes is fresher and breathable, and much calmer. Players will move down the narrow passage, expecting enemies, but finding no real surprises or hints of the undead. There are some tempting items to be collected, but the danger is obvious and well lit, and while ominous, the endless valley chasm presents no threat. However, after traveling to the end of the Valley, players will be presented with yet another colossal space, a thick stone bridge hanging across the chasm dotted with blue drakes, these muscular, slow-moving dragons.

The blue drakes do not move until the player is within close range. They are not particular deadly enemies, but just witnessing the six of them on the bridge from afar is an awesome sight. The blue of their scales looks like nothing else in the game. It is so vibrant and saturated and shocking and is evocative of the bright, unnatural blood color from horror movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s (Dawn of the Dead, the Hammer horror films) due to its striking, sick, memorable quality. Images and recorded video, even at high quality, cannot properly demonstrate how the drakes look when actually playing the game, preferably in HD.

Out of all the enemy encounters in Dark Souls, the drakes stand out to me as one of the most beautiful and horrifying. For a game that has giant skeleton dogs popping out of the darkness, terrifying humanoid mimic chests waiting to be opened, and hydras the size of a lake, stumbling upon these majestic, inhuman titanic beasts is a mysterious and special event. Many players farm the drakes for rare Dragon Scales for hours, which may detract from the dynamism of the area, or least take away from the ungodly and silent power the drakes seem to have, but playing the game to its limits should not diminish the game’s ultimate brilliance. New players will continue to stumble upon the drakes in one of the game’s farthest corners and slow their pace, unsure if they should approach the drakes, unable to read those unnatural, saturated blue hides.

The Great Hollow, a descending vertigo of muscular tree branches, is an interesting little pocket of the Dark Souls world, full of stunning and detailed textures for the bark and roots. The area, which is inside a cavernous, hollowed out tree, is so earthy and visceral, with tree branches shuttering and snapping as players cross them, sometimes leading them to fall from dangerous heights. Due to the area being inside a giant tree, it is mostly vertical, with progress being made only when players fall down to the next series of branches. There are not too many vertical areas in games, so the Great Hollow is a welcome sight.

Dark Souls1 real

Also noteworthy and adding to the calm, earthy tone of the area is the fact that it is reached from within the depths of Blighttown, and only after players wade through waist high mud, hordes of bloody leeches, and diseased mosquitos can they enter the Great Hollow. This contrast only enhances the silence and mystery of the place, and although it has its own share of dangers, makes the area a breath of relieving, fresh air.

There is a never-ending labyrinthine adventure quality to the spaces in Dark Souls, meaning that a player could just wander indefinitely in most directions and continually discover new passages and new areas. Discovering the Great Hollow alone takes quite a journey, forcing players to leave behind the safety of the bonfire embers for the putrid sea of mud and poison. But the Great Hollow is only a passage to a more mysterious cavity of Dark Souls. Ash Lake is a complete secret to players and only stumbled upon by the most curious adventurers.

Due to the lake’s size and its flat, pre-rendered distant background, fuzzy, endless trees, Ash Lake, a misty beach, instantly recalls the Altar of Lord Jabu-Jabu from Ocarina of Time, as well as other large, early 3D areas in games. Ash Lake is the only time in Dark Souls where the game does not feel like a real three-dimensional space and instead feels like a surreal N64 space. But rather than detract from the area, this adds a ghostly, dreamy quality to Ash Lake, making it seem even larger and more flat.

The area is relatively quiet, with only a handful of shell enemies combing the beach. There is a towering hydra at the water’s edge, which startles players with an icy blast before they are even aware of its presence. The hydra, too, adds to the irregular mysteriousness and sacred pressure of Ash Lake. Players feel as if they have just entered a holy area, a sanctuary away from the brutal Lordran, and must step lightly as to not disturb the sacred gray sand.

An enormous sand dune in the area disallows easy movement, and the sand constantly pushes players downward, often into the deadly watery pits of the lake. Not being able to enter the lake without dying strangely parallels the dangers of the mud of Blighttown, in which players will be poisoned if entered. Even in this crystalline jewel box of a lake, the world itself is still unkind and toxic. Growing up on Lake Ontario, I have an affinity for quiet beaches, and would put Ash Lake up there with the greatest beaches in games, including the one from Ico and areas from Shadow of the Colossus, Wind Waker, and Dragon Quest VIII. Beaches are strange because they are so barren and alien, and hold a specific beauty, but also because they are strange spatially, with the water’s edge acting as an invisible wall that continues to the horizon line.

Continued here (part 2)…

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